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Balzac, Honoré de

Category: Genius

Honoré de Balzac (20 May 1799 – 18 August 1850) was a French novelist and playwright, admired and feted after his death by many famous writers - Émile Zola, Charles Dickens, Gustave Flaubert, and Henry James amongst many others.  Filmmakers Akira Kurosawa and Eric Rohmer used his works. Many of Balzac's works have been made into films, and they continue to inspire other writers.

Left:  Balzac in His Monk's Habit, 1829 Louis Boulanger

Peck, Harry Thurston - The Cosmopolitan, July, 1899

The place which this great genius must ultimately hold in literary history has not yet been definitely settled. French critics link his name with that of Shakespeare, while English critics seem to think that a comparison like this is very daring. My own belief is that at the last his name will be placed higher still than Shakespeare's, at the very apex of a pyramid of literary fame.

Owing to his ‘keen observation of detail and unfiltered representation of society’, Balzac is regarded as one of the founders of realism in European literature.  He is renowned for his multi-faceted characters; even his lesser characters are complex, morally ambiguous and fully human. Inanimate objects are imbued with character as well; the city of Paris, a backdrop for much of his writing, takes on many human qualities.

Theophile Gautier as quoted in A Memoir of Balzac, Honoré de. by K. P. Wormley

When I saw Balzac for the first time he was about thirty-six, and his personality was one of those that are never forgotten. In his presence Shakespeare's words came to my memory—before him "nature might stand up and say to all the world: This was a man." He wore the monk's habit of white flannel or cashmere, in which, some time later, he made Louis Boulanger paint him. What fancy had led him to choose, in preference to all other costumes, this particular one, which he always wore, I do not know. Perhaps it symbolized to his eyes the cloistral life to which his work condemned him; and, benedictine of romance, he wore the robe. However that may be, it became him wonderfully….

As to his eyes, there were never any like them; they had a life, a light, an inconceivable magnetism; the whites of the eyeballs was pure, limpid, with a bluish tinge, like that of an infant or a virgin, enclosing two black diamonds, dashed at moments with gold reflections—eyes to make an eagle drop his lids—eyes to read through walls and into bosoms or to terrify a furious wild beast—the eyes of a sovereign, a seer, a subjugator. The habitual expression of the face was that of puissant hilarity, of Rabelaisian and monachal joy.

Strange as it may seem to say so in the nineteenth century, Balzac was a seer. His power as an observer, his discernment as a physiologist, his genius as a writer, do not sufficiently account for the infinite variety of the two or three thousand types which play a rôle more or less important in his human comedy. He did not copy them: he lived them ideally. He wore their clothes, contracted their habits, moved in their surroundings, was themselves, during the necessary time.

His works and inspiration

The novel sequence La Comédie humaine, which presents a panorama of post-Napoleonic French life, is generally viewed as his magnum opus.  Other works for which he is known include Eugénie Grandet, La Peau de chagrin, Le Père Goriot, Colonel Chabert, La Rabouilleuse, Le Lys dans la vallée, Illusions perdues and Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes.  Other works include Les Chouans and Physiologie du Marriage.

And yet Balzac, ‘penetrating physiologist, profound observer, intuitive spirit’, did not naturally possess the skill of the writer . In him ‘yawned an abyss between thought and form’.  In other words the inspiration was immense but the ability to translate into words what he perceived was for many of his early years almost completely lacking.

Cosmic Consciousness, by Richard Maurice Bucke, [1901] - CHAPTER 12.  Honoré de Balzac.

While still very young Balzac decided to be a writer. It seems that he felt, even as a boy, that he was destined to do something great in that line, and he composed at school, among other things, a treatise on the will and an epic poem.

Left Drawing of Balzac in the mid-1820s, attributed to Achille Devéria

Later he wrote at Paris, in the course of ten years, mostly under the pseudonym of "Horace de Saint Aubin," some forty volumes, said to be almost entirely valueless. A good authority [James, Henry, Jr. French Poets and Novelists] sums up this episode in Balzac's history as follows: "Before he was thirty years old he had published, under a variety of pseudonyms, some twenty long novels, veritable Grub Street productions, written in sordid Paris attics, in poverty, in perfect obscurity. Several of these "œuvres de jeunesse" have lately been republished, but the best of them are unreadable. No writer ever served harder apprenticeship to his art, or lingered more hopelessly at the base of the ladder of fame."

Then, at the age of thirty, something clicked, and the ability to translate what he ‘saw’ into prose suddenly started to flourish.  The first really great novel that he was able to write with this new found ability was Louis Lambert, when he was thirty-two years of age. By 1833, when he was thirty-four years of age, he had ‘entered into full possession of his true life as a writer, a presentiment of which had dominated him from early boyhood.’

Madame Surville as quoted in A Memoir of Balzac, Honoré de. by K. P. Wormley

It was not until 1833, about the time of the publication of the "Médecin de Campagne," that he first thought of collecting all his personages together and forming a complete society. The day when this idea burst upon his mind was a glorious day for him. He started from the Rue Cassini, where he had taken up his abode after leaving the Rue de Tournon, and rushed to the faubourg Poissonniere, where I was then living.
'Make your bow to me,' he said to us, joyously; 'I am on the highroad to become a genius!'
He then unfolded his plan, which frightened him a little, for no matter how vast his brain might be, it needed time to work out a scheme like that.
'How glorious it will be if I succeed,' he said, walking up and down the room. He could not keep still; joy radiated from every feature. 'I'll willingly let them call me a maker of tales, all the while that I am cutting stones for my edifice. I gloat in advance over the astonishment of those near-sighted creatures as they see it rise’

What appears to have freed him to write with genius is his casting off of the cloak of older style writers and his decision to write in a completely different way – the so called realist style, itself a mark of genius - similar to the way James Joyce invented his own style.  Thus Balzac is not only remembered for being a very good writer, but is perhaps best remembered as the genius who dragged literature from its older dependence on the classics into a new era.

James, Henry, Jr. French Poets and Novelists 1878

Balzac proposed to himself to illustrate by a tale or a group of tales every phase of French life and manners during the first half of the nineteenth century. To be colossally and exhaustively complete—complete not only in the generals but in the particulars—to touch upon every salient point, to illuminate every typical feature, to reproduce every sentiment, every idea, every person, every place, every object, that has played a part, however minute, however obscure, in the life of the French people.

Theophile Gautier quoted in A Memoir of Honoré de Balzac by K. P. Wormley

Balzac owes nothing to antiquity. For him there are neither Greeks nor Romans, nor any trace in the composition of his talent of Homer, or Virgil, or Horace—no one was ever less classic ……..

Criticism

The sign that you have indeed hit upon a worthwhile idea which is worth pursuing, is if the critics absolutely blast what you have done.  Every genius from Beethoven to William Blake, from Shakespeare to Shostakovich has been totally derided, ridiculed and viciously and cruelly panned by the critics.  And Balzac was no exception.

A Memoir of Honoré de Balzac by K. P. Wormley. Roberts Bros., Boston, 1892

August, 1833. The 'Médecin de Campagne' will reach you next week. It has cost me ten times the work that 'Louis Lambert' did. There is not a sentence, not an idea, which has not been viewed and reviewed, read and reread, and corrected; the labor was frightful. I may now die in peace. I have done a great work for my country. To my mind it is better to have written this book than to have made laws and to have won battles. It is the gospel in action….
October, 1833. Do you know how the 'Médecin' has been received? By a torrent of insults. The three newspapers of my own party which have spoken of it have done so with the utmost contempt for the work and its author.
December, 1835. Never has the torrent which bears me onward been so rapid; no more terribly majestic work has ever compelled the human brain. I go to my toil as a gambler to cards. I sleep only five hours and work eighteen; I shall end by killing myself.

And in the latter paragraph we also have the hallmark of a genius and that is that they don’t actually care what the critics say [although the hurt at times may be truly terrible], because in their hearts they know that what they are doing is ‘right’, right because the voices in their heads tell them that this is their destiny and they must keep going:

A Memoir of Honoré de Balzac by K. P. Wormley. Roberts Bros., Boston, 1892

One might suppose that his feelings would have been hurt when he found the way barred against his entrance to the Academy. But he behaved with dignity and withdrew his name when failure seemed probable. 'The matter does not stir my feelings very much,' he said; 'some persons think not at all, but they are mistaken. If I do get there, so much the better; if I do not, no matter'.

Falling into the mire while gazing at the stars

For both Arthur Schopenhauer and Kant, a genius is recognisable by their lack of interest in mundane concerns.  In Schopenhauer's words, they ‘fall into the mire while gazing at the stars’ and it would seem that Balzac spent most of his life doing both.

Early on, Balzac was persuaded by his father to follow him into the Law and for three years he trained and worked at the office of Victor Passez, a family friend.  In 1819 Passez offered to make Balzac his successor, but his apprentice had had enough of the Law.  All he saw was what he might become:

a clerk, a machine, a riding-school hack, eating and drinking and sleeping at fixed hours. I should be like everyone else. And that's what they call living, that life at the grindstone, doing the same thing over and over again.... I am hungry and nothing is offered to appease my appetite.

Before and during his career as a writer, he attempted to be a businessman, critic, and politician; he failed in all of these efforts. Balzac borrowed money from his family and friends and tried to build a printing business, then a typefounder enterprise, he failed miserably.  He gave the businesses to a friend (who made them successful) but carried the debts for many years. As of April 1828 Balzac owed 50,000 francs to his mother.  La Comédie Humaine reflects his real-life difficulties, and includes scenes from his own experience.  

Beliefs and religion

In the preface to La Comédie Humaine Balzac wrote: "Christianity, above all, Catholicism, being ... a complete system for the repression of the depraved tendencies of man, is the most powerful element of social order".  To which should perhaps be added - 'for everyone else but me'.  Balzac looked upon religion as the mechanism by which man-made moral codes of conduct were made and enforced.

In complete contrast however, this is what he had to say on genius and its role:

Balzac, Honore de and Kathleen Raine (Translator). Lost Illusions. 1837.

Genius is answerable only to itself; it is the sole judge of the means, since it alone knows the end; thus genius must consider itself as above the law, for it is the task of genius to remake the law; moreover the man who frees himself from his time and place may take everything, hazard everything, for everything is his by right.

Balzac was not immoral, in fact one writer in his biography says that "Balzac was the greatest moralist of the nineteenth century, one who does not preach but shows the truth".  But he was consumed by an overwhelming sense of destiny which can only come from repeated and intense spiritual experience. 

Men die in despair, while spirits die in ecstasy.
Balzac, Honore de and George Saintsbury (Translator). The Human Comedy. 1845

He very accurately defined and described the effects of such experiences in his novels and he could not have described the condition, if he had not experienced it.  The descriptions were given to his characters to voice, but one cannot convincingly describe a spiritual experience unless one has had one:

In "Louis Lambert," for example, a book which is openly autobiographic, he ascribes these experiences to himself; and in "Seraphita" he creates a personality in which the experiences are the focus of the book and the course of the narrative brings in numerous characteristic features of each type.  Simply put, Balzac stood apart from and on a higher plane than ordinary men.

It is I think, important to realise that his books – apparently works of fiction – are the only evidence we will ever have of this secret spiritual life.  Those who are immersed at this level share only what needs to be shared to move men on in the Great Work.

A Memoir of Honoré de Balzac by K. P. Wormley

A complete life of Balzac cannot be written at the present time and possibly never can be. Nearly the whole of what he was to himself, what his own being was, what were the influences that molded it, how that eye that saw the manifold lives of others saw his own life, how that soul which crowned its earthly work with a vision of the living word was nurtured—what that soul was, in short, has been concealed from sight.

and

Harry Thurston Peck -The Cosmopolitan, July, 1899

Search as one may, there is no complete life of Balzac. There are still unpublished letters and papers in the possession of the Vicomte de Spoelberch de Lovenjoul, a compatriot who thoroughly understood him; but adding these to all that has been written, it is still doubtful if the real man will be found behind them. Expansive at times, yet he withdrew from the knowledge of others. There are periods in his life when he disappears, lies concealed from sight, and each must interpret for himself the secret that made his power and insures his fame.

Death

In February 1832 Balzac had received an intriguing letter from Odessa—with no return address and signed simply "L'Étrangère" ("The Foreigner"). His response had been to place a classified advertisement in the Gazette de France. Thus began a fifteen-year correspondence between Balzac and "the object of [his] sweetest dreams": Ewelina Hańska.  Ewelina was married to a nobleman twenty years her senior, Marshal Wacław Hański. It had been a marriage of convenience.

Marshal Hański died in 1841, and Balzac visited Countess Hańska in St. Petersburg in 1843 winning her heart.  On 14 March 1850, with Balzac's health in serious decline, they travelled to St. Barbara's Catholic Church in Berdychiv , where they were married.

In late April the newly-weds set off for Paris. His health deteriorated on the way, and Ewelina wrote to her daughter about Balzac being "in a state of extreme weakness" and "sweating profusely". They arrived in the French capital on 20 May, his fifty-first birthday.  Five months after his wedding, on Sunday, 18 August 1850, Balzac died in the presence of his mother.  Eve de Balzac (formerly Countess Hańska) had gone to bed.

Balzac is buried at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. The funeral was attended by "almost every writer in Paris".  Later, a statue (called the Monument à Balzac) was created by the celebrated French sculptor Auguste Rodin. Cast in bronze, the Balzac Monument has stood since 1939 nearby the intersection of Boulevard Raspail and Boulevard Montparnasse at Place Pablo-Picasso.

References

  • Balzac, Honoré de. A Memoir of, by K. P. Wormley. Roberts Bros., Boston, 1892.
  • Balzac, Honoré de. Louis Lambert. Roberts Bros., Boston, 1889.
  • Balzac, Honoré de. Seraphita. Roberts Bros., Boston, 1889.
  • Balzac, Honoré de. The Exiles.

W. P. Trent - Atlantic Monthly, October, 1896

The unexpected sometimes happens, as I discovered recently when I finished the fiftieth volume of M. Calmann Levy's popular edition of the works of Balzac. I had thought that the completion of Horace's odes and Shakespeare's plays, and of the 'Odyssey,' marked the three chief epochs in my own intellectual life, and that I might not likely be so stirred, so swept away again, by any book or by any author.

But I had erred.

Balzac, whose novels taken singly had moved me powerfully, but had not often swept me away, whom I had made a companion of for years without fully comprehending—this Balzac, when viewed in the light of his total and stupendous achievements, suddenly stood out before me in his full stature and might, as one of the few genuine world geniuses that our race can point to with legitimate and unshakable pride. I had emerged from the 'Comédie Humaine' just as I had emerged from the Homeric poems and from the plays of Shakespeare, feeling that I had traversed a world and been in the presence of a veritable creator."

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